Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Countdown: The Liberators - Tom Kratman

Countdown: The Liberators
-Tom Kratman

Many years ago, I read a semi-factual novel entitled The Dogs of War, which featured an army of mercenaries being assembled to knock over a tyrannical regime in Africa and allow the backers of the plot to claim the country’s vast mineral rights. The book was long on details and short on action, something I found rather disappointing. The latter charge, at least, is not one that can be levelled at Countdown: The Liberators. There is enough action to satisfy even a hardened action-junkie like myself.

Countdown: The Liberators introduces us to a retired soldier who is bored with life, even though he has a wonderful girlfriend. Wes Stauer was pushed into retiring after an ‘incident’ in Afghanistan that embarrassed the powers-that-be, along with most of his team. One night, he is awakened by a knock at the door and encounters an old friend with a desperate message. His chief’s son has been kidnapped and he needs Wes to help him organise a rescue mission. It seems impossible at first, but Wes isn’t daunted. Recruiting many of his old friends from the military, he puts together a force that starts tracing the missing son to his prison.

In the meantime, Adam – the missing son in question – gets a harsh lesson from his kidnappers on the realities of modern Africa, realities that were ignored by his teachers at Boston, Massachusetts. He discovers that the freedom he previously enjoyed was only his because of his position in the clan; now, as a prisoner, he is no better off than anyone else in Africa. Escape seems futile and so he resigns himself to a long spell in captivity.

The action builds up as Wes and his team start moving towards their final goal, rescuing Adam. They trace his route out of America and over to Africa – his kidnappers have worked with AQ – but they are unable to locate the boy himself. Choosing to seek hostages to trade for Adam – or to kill in reprisal for his death – Wes leads his men in a massive assault. Crushing the rival tribe, they take hostages to force the kidnappers to surrender Adam back to his father. In the aftermath, Wes convinces his men to stay together for a series of future operations, fighting to hold back the darkness. There will be more stories to come.

Countdown: The Liberators can be read on three levels. The first is that of an action novel, where action and excitement is king. The second is a primer on how to organise, train and ultimately deploy a light infantry force with a small armour component. The third is a brief introduction to the realities of Modern Africa and how the oddly-aligned forces of Islamic Fundamentalism and Foreign Aid interact to make the lot of the local inhabitants much worse. Tom is good at selecting examples of the latter, remarking on how some aid is actually counter-productive and how blind-spots within the minds of those behind the aid, who have little understanding of local realities, can make matters much worse.

A good example of this can be seen in the slave auction that one of his characters witnesses. The outsiders buy the slaves and free them, outbidding the locals. The net result is that slavers kidnap more slaves to sell them to the outsiders…and so on into infinity. The solution of arming the slave tribes is rejected, as is simply shooting the slavers on sight. None of this is actually new, at least not to anyone who keeps up on the fundamental issues of the region, but Tom makes it real.

Tom also addresses the politics of both women and homosexuals in the military, refusing to shy away from many of the issues thus invoked. Personally (I think) Tom is opposed to the integration of both categories into the front-line military forces, although he also details ways to make it work. I do tend to long for the gender neutral vision of the future shown in the Honor Harrington books, although it must be pointed out that those books took place on sterile spaceships, rather than ground forces.

A point I disliked is that a single point – Western Aid to Africa does more harm than good – is hammered home time and time again. I don’t disagree with it – Tom is right on the money here. The fundamental issue here is not that the aid workers are evil, but that they are either naive or (worse) unaccountable to the locals. And, of course, cutting foreign aid is politically impossible. At the same time, the point would probably have been better saved for an afterword; it distracts from the overall story. A secondary problem is the use of a clear analogue of President Obama in commenting on problems facing the US in Afghanistan. The problems the US is facing there are daunting – I doubt that even the adoption of mass slaughter is a workable tactic.

Absent those minor quibbles, Countdown: The Liberators is definitely well worth a read, perhaps the best novel that Tom has (yet) produced. Although it bears some similarity to the earlier A Desert Called Peace, it stands up well on its own. The plot has many twists and a few major problems, but the rescuers overcome all obstacles to complete their mission. Tom is at his best when dealing with a small unit – both while under construction and in combat – and it shows.

Eight out of ten.

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